It’s been a long four months for Andrew Janz. The road from unknown long shot to perhaps the nation’s most prominent political underdog story has not allowed for pit stops.
On the eve of Tuesday's primary election, Janz was looking forward to the weekend – his first days off the campaign trail in 2018. He was determined, he said, not to be outworked in his bid to unseat arguably the country's most talked-about and polarizing congressman, Tulare Republican Devin Nunes.
Of the five challengers vying to oust Nunes, Janz’s considerable fundraising advantage and extremely high profile would seem enough to set him on a collision path with the House Intelligence Committee chairman in November.
If that happens, the superlatives are sure to fly across the central San Joaquin Valley and echo throughout the country from now until the general election in November. It’s David vs. Goliath, Ali/Foreman – two high-profile candidates with totally opposing viewpoints and campaign styles in California’s 22nd District.
But that’s November. For now, Janz is focused on just making it out of the top-two primary election on Tuesday.
“A good night for me is in the high 20s" in terms of percentage of the vote, Janz said Monday morning.
“A good night for us is we’re in the top two,” interjected campaign manager Heather Greven, who sat to the candidate’s left at a downtown Fresno Starbucks.
Nunes’ campaign declined to comment for this story.
The 22nd Congressional District race is the highest-profile on central San Joaquin Valley ballots given Nunes' stature, but of course it's not the only thing voters are being asked to consider. The primary will narrow the field to two for statewide offices from governor down, plus the field for Dianne Feinstein's U.S. Senate seat, other congressional seats and state Assembly and some state Senate districts.
There are three Fresno City Council seats up for grabs as well as a handful of county races.
Greven and Janz said Tuesday’s election likely won’t tell them much about their progress against the heavily entrenched Nunes, as Janz will likely split votes with fellow Democrats Bobby Bliatout and Ricardo Franco. Two other challengers – Libertarian Bill Merryman and Brian Carroll, who’s registered as no party preference – also are in the mix.
The Janz camp also expects a low Democratic turnout, which it says is typical in primary elections in non-presidential years.
Early returns appear to back that up, as only about 18.5 percent of the 211,406 by-mail ballots had been returned as of Friday. Of the 39,205 ballots returned, 19,226 came from registered Republicans. Democrats and no-party preference accounted for 13,430 and 4,767, respectively, while ballots from other parties totaled 1,782.
Janz insisted that a low showing – 10, 11, 12 percent of the vote – would not damage his resolve or momentum. If that happened, he would seek to remind voters that four other challengers and low Democratic turnout in the primary hampered his progress.
Fresno State professor's analysis
Jeff Cummins, professor of political science at Fresno State, said Janz’s campaign is probably hoping for a primary result closer to 35 or 40 percent of the vote, given how much money it has raised in such a short time.
“The more he gets closer to 40 (percentage points), the more he will be taken seriously, and the more money will get poured into his race,” Cummins said.
Cummins does not believe any of the other challengers have much of a chance to overtake Janz.
“Most people say he’s a shoo-in,” Cummins said.
Given that Janz has already raised $2 million to Nunes’ more than $5 million, Cummins said he believes it’s possible the race will pull in more than $10 million once the dust settles in November.
Although Nunes has a clear dollar advantage, Cummins noted that challenger spending is often more effective than incumbent spending.
Cummins said he believes the race will be the first in the country to truly gauge whether Trump will hurt or help Republican election bids, and it will also be a good measure of just how much the voters of the central San Joaquin Valley care about Nunes’ involvement in the special investigation into possible Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
“No congressman has ever raised such questions about separation of powers,” Cummins said. “By providing investigation information to the president, he was not acting in the interest of Congress. Congress is supposed to act as a counterweight to the executive office.”
Looking to November
Should Janz make it out, a race with an unusual amount of pre-primary intrigue and national exposure will likely explode.
In one corner, it’s Nunes: A 15-year Congressional veteran with close ties to Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, as well as experience on both the Intelligence and Ways and Means committees.
He’s dominated every general election since first running in 2002, having never received less than 62 percent of the vote. He is perhaps the GOP’s best fundraiser, already amassing nearly $5 million this cycle.
Nunes is routinely attacked for his closeness with President Donald Trump, whose transition team included only one member of Congress: Nunes.
Janz, his growing roster of celebrity supporters and many media outlets have sought to exploit this as a weakness. However, unlike the neighboring Congressional districts in the Fresno area, Nunes’ constituents favored Trump over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016.
Janz, by contrast, is attempting to win his first election since being elected student body president at Stanislaus State. He’s put his career as a violent crimes prosecutor on hold to run against the previously untouchable incumbent.
He’s used his criminal justice background as a weapon in TV advertisements against Nunes, whom he said has no concept of the law given his involvement in the 2016 election special investigation.
Janz has accused Nunes of being so wrapped up in Washington politics that he’s forgotten his constituents back home.
The dichotomy between the two is perhaps most apparent in their public personas.
Democrats have blasted Nunes for not hosting public town hall meetings, while Janz has held Q&A sessions in backyards, high school cafeterias and on street corners.
Nunes has refused to talk to most mainstream media outlets, save for the conservative-friendly confines of Fox News or local KMJ 580 AM/105.9 FM. Janz has appeared on everything from podcasts to CNN, giving interviews to both unabashedly left-leaning publications like Huffington Post and VICE as well as Fox News and KMJ.
Janz has used these appearance to call out Nunes by name, while the incumbent may have never referred to his opponent by name in public. Nunes has instead referred to Janz as a liberal opponent hand-picked by the left as part of a national conspiracy to remove him.
Cummins, with Fresno State, expects the race to become even more contentious between the two in the months leading up to November.
“It will be a knock-down, drag-out fight for the next few months,” he said. “Nunes is feeling the heat. He realizes he has a stronger challenger than he’s had in the past. And with how he’s politicized the House Intelligence Committee, he should definitely realize it’s competitive."
Other Congressional races
Two other Valley Congressional races each feature only one challenger, meaning Tuesday's primary will serve as progress reports before the general election.
Republican newcomer Elizabeth Heng is challenging longtime Democratic incumbent Jim Costa in the 16th District. Costa has a considerable fundraising advantage in his Democratic-leaning district, but he has survived surprisingly close races in past midterm elections against Johnny Tacherra and Andy Vidak.
Valadao has continuously fended off challengers in a district that supported Hillary Clinton by a nearly 16 percentage point margin. Democrats have once again targeted Valadao. In March, Cox moved from the crowded 10th District race into the 21st.
As of May 16, Cox had raised about $761,000 to Valadao's nearly $2 million.
In the 4th District that runs the spine of the Sierra from Fresno County north past Lake Tahoe, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, faces five challengers. The most likely to advance appear to be Jessica Morse or Regina Bateson, two Democrats whose fundraising totals dwarf the other would-be challengers.
Bateson, a military security analyst, has raised nearly $723,000. Morse, who had been previously designated as a national security strategist before a judge rejected that title, has raised about $1.07 million – about $8,000 less than McClintock.
When: Tuesday, June 5
Polls open: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Fresno County:fresnovote.com, 559-600-8683
Kings County:countyofkings.com/elections, 559-852-4401
Madera County:votemadera.com, 800-435-0509
Mariposa County:mariposacounty.org/elections, 209-966-2007
Merced County:mercedelections.org, 800-561-0169
Tulare County:tularecoelections.org, 559-624-7300